Reflections On SEMPO

The Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization should have had a happy first birthday last month. Instead, SEMPO found festivities marred when a critical article kicked off concerns over poor communication about board of director decisions, the group’s overall mission and other issues.

I previously recapped some of the forum discussions that emerged in the wake of Mike Grehan’s Who Needs SEMPO article at the end of July, which took SEMPO to task. Since then, the group addressed some of the concerns raised during its first anniversary meeting last month. More recently, the group released a new FAQ covering some additional topics. Meanwhile, discussions both pro, con and in between about SEMPO continued on forums throughout August.

In this article, I wanted to recap some of the key issues I think have been raised in all the talk and provide my own perspective on some of them.

Gaining Legitimacy

Since its inception, some have questioned whether SEMPO should even exist. This has commonly been accompanied by fears the group would claim to be the “official” voice of the search engine marketing industry, such as expressed in this forum post.

Whether SEMPO should exist is a non-issue, in my book. It already exists. It has a large number of members who have committed to it with actions and cash.

Who SEMPO represents is another thing. It certainly can’t claim to be the official industry body. Nor, does its board tell me, does SEMPO actually try to claim this. That’s good, because no group can assert such a thing.

Certainly SEMPO can claim to be “a leading industry group” for search engine marketing, because the simple qualification of “a” rather than “the” acknowledges that there may be other groups out there, as well. Such semantics may sound stupid. However, by carefully watching what it says, and how it says it, SEMPO will avoid trouble.

I commented recently that one release I saw from SEMPO seemed fairly good on this front — even-handed and factual. Hopefully we’ll see that type of positioning continue. SEMPO tells me this has indeed been the case for all 11 releases they’ve issued, which you’ll find listed on the new SEMPO PR blog. I’m told the releases all end with this description:

SEMPO is a non-profit professional association working to increase awareness and promote the value of Search Engine Marketing worldwide. The organization represents the common interests of more than 250 companies and consultants worldwide and provides them with a voice in the marketplace. For more information, or to join the organization, please visit SEMPO.

More Transparency Needed

Communication by SEMPO’s board to its members has been poor. Probably the two most glaring examples of this came right out of Mike Grehan’s article:

  • SEMPO president Barbara Coll was made acting executive director of the group, complete with a stipend, as of May 15 this year (a search for a permanent director is current in progress). The action was approved by SEMPO’s board, but the membership as a whole wasn’t kept informed. Indeed, no one learned of it until Grehan’s article was published over two months later, in July. (FYI, the stipend is $150 per hour, capped two hours per weekday. Potentially, Coll could earn up to $6,000 to $6,500 per month, but SEMPO’s board says she’s rarely billed this much).
  • The board gained a new member, but the membership neither was involved in electing this member or polled before the decision was made. SEMPO bylaws apparently didn’t require the membership to be polled, but that’s beside the point. Members certainly were entitled to be kept informed that a new board member was being considered before the actual announcement happened.

The board acknowledged its poor communication and apologized for it when many members gathered for a meeting during Search Engine Strategies San Jose on August 2. Better communication was promised. However, a terse post-meeting newsletter in mid-August to members left some like Jill Whalen less than thrilled.

Whalen started a thread specifically to dissect the mailing and explain how much more, as a member and someone interested in SEMPO, she wanted to know. She did get a great reply from a SEMPO board member, but the pulling teeth feel to gaining these details was a terrible way for SEMPO to deliver on its better communication promise.

The Member Questions: August 2004 FAQ posted on the SEMPO web site is a much better effort. Included within it is the positive news that plans are progressing for an online SEMPO member discussion board. It’s something the group desperately needs — it needs just for its own members.

Currently, it’s very difficult to tell how many actual SEMPO members may (or may not) be upset (or happy) with the group on public forums, given that non-members also take part. SEMPO members themselves need a better way to communicate with each other, hear from board members, committee leaders and to help drive their own group forward as a community. The forums should be a big aid with this.

Aside from the forums, the board should seek to do far more regular updates on the various issues they are considering. Even if they haven’t taken action, keeping their membership appraised through regular FAQ updates or newsletters of what’s being considered will help some members feel less out-of-the-loop if decisions are taken.

Bottoms Up

Members may feel more involved and informed if they themselves are driving SEMPO forward, rather than the current top-down mode of the board members contemplating so many issues and making decisions

SEMPO does have a number of committees. Committee members have been involved in growing SEMPO even if they aren’t readily visible, the group says.

For example, SEMPO tells me that its education committee considers, edits and posts about two to three educational articles on the SEMPO web site per month and has done so since August 2003. The articles themselves have been visible, but the fact ordinary SEMPO members have been involved in this may have gone unnoticed.

SEMPO also says it has now recruited a total of 85 volunteers, 50 of whom signed on AFTER its meeting last month. That’s a great sign that the members themselves are rising to the challenge of building SEMPO. New committees have also been formed to develop the group’s elections procedures, for its UK members and for its executive director search.

Virtual Meetings

Another issue is that SEMPO has, to my knowledge, only had actual meetings in conjunction with Search Engine Strategies conferences over the past year. In part, this has made sense. The group was born out of people who attended the search engine marketing show that I organize. But certainly not everyone can attend. For example, New Zealand-based Peter da Vanzo, of, provided a humorous illustration of his difficulties.

I’ve always said that I hope the group has meetings everywhere that search engine marketers congregate. But in particular, even better if there’s a virtual way for the meetings to happen. That will allow people worldwide to take part.

Why not broadcast physical meetings? I know SEMPO diligently tried that at least once, and it didn’t go well for a variety of reasons, mainly technical. But there’s probably no reason to even have physical meetings. By and large, they’ve been miserable affairs. There’s been some update of news to members at these meetings, but nothing that couldn’t have been done via online just as well or better.

As for the long, boring sponsor presentations that plagued the most recent meeting in San Jose, I didn’t view that as something orchestrated to eat up time to avoid discussing possible member concerns. To me, that was just business as usual for a SEMPO meeting, sadly. Other meetings have been the same — and all the more reason to get rid of them.

Rather than formal, physical meetings, why not just have mixers and pure networking events at various search and marketing shows? I’m sure many members would be happy to get their updates online and prefer to socialize and network with fellow members in person.

For its part, SEMPO’s board told me that wants to continue having physical meetings. Canceling them is seen as hurting communications. Instead, they agree the meeting content can be improved, and that’s what they will be working toward.

Meeting Recap

By the way, for those who didn’t get to attend the meeting, there are a number of recaps and related articles to consider:

  • SEMPO Meeting at SES San Jose 2004 kicks off with Barry Schwartz (aka RustyBrick) providing a rundown of what was discussed, followed by lots of commentary from those who were there or who read about it from afar.
  • SEMPO Meeting: Danny Sullivan’s Take is part of the above thread, jumping you right to my top-of-the-head rundown on what I thought of the meeting. Lots of things that could have been better, but interesting and positive things were shared, such as the growth of SEMPO’s Japanese chapter to its new ad campaign (more on this below).
  • SEMPO Holds Annual Meeting, Addresses Concerns is from Jennifer Laycock of, providing her take on the meeting.
  • SEMPO Looks Back, Pushes Ahead from ClickZ takes a nice look at the meeting, the issues, recaps what SEMPO’s done over the past year and provides lots of quotes.
  • Who needs SEMPO? – Part deux! has Mike Grehan coming away from the meeting still unhappy about SEMPO’s direction.
  • SEMPO: My View comes from board member Christine Churchill, who as she explains, sits in the unusual situation of helping run the organization that Mike Grehan’s so critical of and being Mike’s business partner as well. She admits the group has made mistakes but says they were honest ones.
  • SEMPO Member Meeting Minutes: August 2, 2004 are the official minutes in PDF format. There’s lots of information here: facts, figures, dates on a variety of issues. You’ll also find links to many of the presentations that were shared.

Electing The Board

Somewhat related to the legitimacy issue is the fact that SEMPO’s board members have never been elected to their positions. What right do these people have to occupy these seats, some have wondered.

For the most part, they gained their seats by volunteering from the very beginning, when SEMPO started organizing back in during the Dallas SES show in December 2002 and the Boston SES show in March 2003.

Aforementioned board member Christine Churchill epitomizes this. She runs KeyRelevance, small SEM firm. She stepped up at the Boston organizational meeting to take minutes. She then continued to diligently volunteer her time to get things ready for the group to launch later that year. It was a nobrainer for her to become a board member. Others who wanted to put in the time no doubt would have been candidates, as well.

Having said this, there’s no doubt that having actual elections would have helped stem some of the legitimacy concerns later raised. I was a board member for a short period between the Boston meeting and the actual launch, when I stepped down to instead be part of SEMPO’s advisory board. One of my suggestions was that elections be held fairly soon after an actual membership base existed.

I’m fairly sure Webmaster World founder Brett Tabke, one of the existing board members, also publicly commented recently that he was of the same mind. And digging through some old emails, when Barbara Coll asked me and several others in February 2003 to be part of the founding council that later turned into the board of directors, she even envisioned the group being replaced by an elected body as soon as it was incorporated as a non-profit organization.

Nevertheless, fast elections never happened. Instead, existing board members won’t come up for reelection until March 2005. How exactly that will work remains to be determined.

To be fair, having elections doesn’t appear to have been an issue with the SEMPO’s actual members. When surveyed about what they wanted last year, elections didn’t make the list. Having been at all SEMPO meetings held during SES shows in the US over the past year, I also don’t recall any grumblings that this was a priority.

There were grumblings that came after the most recent board member, Mauro Lupi, was announced as part of the board during the group’s June 2004 meeting at SES London. To be fair, SEMPO says its bylaws didn’t require any type of member nomination or election process for a new board member to be appointed. But the point is, for the first time, how a board member was appointed was being seriously questioned.

I’d really encourage the board to move elections up faster, if possible. Until they happen, the issue of legitimacy will keep lurking. With elections, the board can go forward with a mandate of approval — or if members really aren’t happy, new board members can take over.

It is important to note that three new board members are planned to be added via member nominations and election by the end of this year. This was announced at the recent SEMPO meeting, though details on the process that were promised to be sent out in mid-August have yet to materialize. That’s because getting election procedures is taking more time than expected, the board tells me. Members have also been informed of this via recent FAQ.

Elections will help with the legitimacy issue. But as said earlier, the solution to some of SEMPO’s problems may not be to have more board members but instead to be more committee driven.

Interestingly, I started a forum thread on the issue of board elections and potential nominations of who should stand for the seats about to come open. Nearly a month later, no one’s replied. To me, that highlights another issue about board elections. Maybe few are willing to take on the time, responsibility and potential criticism involved.

Indeed, one of the biggest problems SEMPO potentially faces is the loss of its existing board members. While I’d like to see elections happen as quickly as possible, to give the board stronger standing, SEMPO would be crippled if several board members resigned suddenly. That would be bad for the many people who, as explored more below, want SEMPO to work through its problems and succeed. But despite the criticisms SEMPO’s faced recently, the board tells me all of its members have recommitted themselves to serving out their terms.

A side issue to the “who’s on the board” concern is the fact board members are all automatically made “Circle” members of SEMPO, saving them a $5,000 membership fee. Andy Beal blogged against this last year, and I’ve seen the issue raised in forums, as well.

It certainly is true, as has been defended by SEMPO’s board in the past, that the board members have put in plenty of time worth some, all or more than this fee. Nevertheless, this is another issue that will continue to haunt the board. I’d encourage an end to the practice.

Board members, by virtue of being board members, gain in stature and visibility — as well as satisfaction in helping the group evolve. Getting free “Circle” member status isn’t necessary, confuses things and leaves the board open to criticism. An easy solution to this is to simply kill membership levels altogether.

Ending The Membership Levels

At the SEMPO organizational meeting back in March 2003, there was wide acknowledgement that the group should have some type of membership fees. But how much? There was a great concern that small companies and individuals might get priced out of participation. At the same time, SEMPO wanted to figure out a way to raise money to undertake projects.

A five-tiered membership level emerged, with prices ranging from $199 to $5,000 (it later dropped to the current four tiers, with the same price range). And while SEMPO members were continually told that they should join SEMPO to help SEMPO aid the industry overall, rather than for any specific benefits, there was an acknowledgement that SEMPO members would want something tangible in exchange for the cash they forked over.

The result was to concoct extra benefits for those who were at higher levels, such as the top “Circle” members getting front page visibility and more links within the SEMPO member directory.

Unfortunately, the levels have worked against SEMPO in a number of ways. Some have suggested that the hyperlinks offered simply make SEMPO’s web site a link farm. Ironically, if that were true (and I don’t believe it to be the intention), it’s not implemented well. Some links apparently aren’t visible to search engines, as this thread discusses: The SEMPO Website and its Page Rank Distribution.

Certainly letting someone claim “Circle” status lets them exchange money to immediately transfer some reputation from SEMPO to themselves. Of course, SEMPO’s hardly the only group like this. For example, got $5,000 to spend per year at minimum? That buys you into the Interactive Advertising Bureau, assuming its board approves. Plenty have been approved, judging from this list of those involved with the IAB’s search engine committee.

SEMPO’s site does have ample disclaimers warning that membership doesn’t connotation any particular qualifications, such as this one on the member’s directory page:

SEMPO is an industry organization designed to promote search engine marketing in general, not an accreditation body for SEM companies. Membership in SEMPO is not a guarantee of a particular search engine marketing company’s capabilities, nor does it signify industry approval or disapproval of their practices. Potential SEM customers should carefully research any SEM company they are considering, SEMPO member or not, before establishing a business relationship.

And this FAQ on the topic:

12. I have seen the SEMPO logo used on different web sites. What does placement of this logo mean?

SEMPO intends for its logo to be used by members as a way to show they support an organization that wants to educate marketing managers on the value of SEM. The use of the logo is not meant to connote any type of industry certification.

Should you feel you’ve seen the SEMPO logo used along with language to suggest that a firm has somehow gained some type of certification, please contact us, so that we can maintain continuity across the membership body.

Nevertheless, the potential for abuse by saying you’re a “Circle” member and thus somehow very good remains. In addition, the levels potentially leaves those at lower levels feeling like they are deemed less important than others.

Personally, I’d like to see the membership levels be reduced to two: individual memberships and company memberships. I think there’s good reasons to have these two different types, as I explain (and other explore more and discuss) here: Should SEMPO Simplify Memberships?

By simplifying things, the group would eliminate many of the problems levels pose. The good news is, it’s something the board is reviewing, as mentioned in its recent FAQ.

Solution To The Qualification Quandary

Prior to the recent concerns about poor communication, one of the biggest things SEMPO came under fire for from some critics was for failing to prequalify members as following “best practices” or some type of “good standards” for search engine marketing.

SEMPO’s response — which I strongly agreed with — was that it couldn’t be a policing body. As I’ve wrote earlier this year in my Spam Rules Require Effective Spam Police article, not even the search engines are willing to be public about firms that spam. Yet a nascent organization was supposed to jump into this? Instead, the group side-stepped the issue when it launched to try and do other things, such as promote the industry as a whole.

I recently urged SEMPO’s board to reconsider the issue, because I was afraid that without some type of action, the SEMPO would continue to be dogged by those who wanted it to do this. In addition, there is a real fear that should a SEMPO member get into public hot water over its search activities, as happened to a non-SEMPO company recently, it would bode ill for the organization.

I still didn’t want SEMPO to take on the policing role, but I wondered if there was a way for them to get the search engines involved in the process, somehow.

A positive note to me out of the August 2004 meeting was that the board announced it was going to explore the issue, a move that was largely lost in debate over all new issues that suddenly came up as priorities for SEMPO to solve.

Moving forward on the issue wasn’t going to be easy, given the huge debate the industry has over what is and is not spam or best practices. Pleasing one group of people might simply make enemies of another.

Amazingly, a new middle ground seems to have opened up. In this thread, SEMPO & The SEM Reputation Problem, it seemed that if membership levels were eliminated — and some other relatively minor changes made — some of those who felt SEMPO should be a policing body might be satisfied that it stay out of that role.

But what if SEMPO does get someone who’s done something illegal or otherwise fallen into ill-repute? Should they be members? Again, the same thread explores that perhaps existing bodies are enough to help police the industry, and SEMPO membership might be lost for actions these other bodies take.

Non-Profit Legal Issues

SEMPO’s a non-profit group, a feel-good situation designed to reinforce the fact that SEMPO aims to help the search marketing industry, not itself. But as it turns out, there’s a number of things that non-profit groups based in the US can — and cannot — do.

To explore this and more, see the SEMPO & Non-Profit Legal Issues thread that covers the topic, though keep in mind what’s alleged doesn’t necessarily mean that it is true.

Toward the end of the thread, an attorney helping SEMPO get its legal house in order adds some comments and information — and he also posts over at the High Rankings Forum here on the same topic: Sempo’s Preliminary Legal Review.

SEMPO certainly needs to be on a firm legal footing, so the review should help. And it may be that ultimately, the group might have to drop its non-profit status in order to offer members benefits or other things, if that’s indeed what members want.

Probably the biggest concern I have right now on the legal front is SEMPO’s failure to provide its bylaws. You’ll see this come up in the aforementioned SEMPO & Non-Profit Legal Issues thread. Why all this hassle? Why aren’t SEMPO’s bylaws simply posted online for all its members to read?

SEMPO’s response is that the they aren’t required to post the bylaws on the web, and that since they are currently in legal review, they’ve been advised by their lawyer not to circulate them. Members have also been told via the recent FAQ that the bylaws are being revised.

In particular, SEMPO’s board tells me the current bylaws are in review because they were written originally to form a 501(c)3 non-profit charitable group but that SEMPO ended up getting 501(c)6 designation, for a different type of non-profit group. The revised bylaws will probably be released this month, SEMPO said.

The Dual Hat Situation

Another issue that’s been raised is that SEMPO needs to ensure its board members are wearing the right “hat” when they speak. Are they being quoted as a representative of SEMPO or on behalf of their own companies?

It’s important to remember that sometimes you can’t control the “hat” someone wants to put on you. A reporter, for example, might decide to cite any number of affiliations someone has. But when the group itself issues releases and communications, hat confusion should be avoided.

For SEMPO’s part, the board tells me it has modified procedures and the companies of board members will no longer be mentioned in SEMPO press releases unless it is pertinent to the story.

What’s SEMPO’s Mission?

Believe it or not, SEMPO’s role is supposed to be helping promote the search engine marketing industry. That’s why I’ve read in amazement posts at various forums where people have suggested that maybe there needs to be an industry group to do exactly this. A good thread on this topic is over at Cre8asite’s forums: After SEMPO: Should We Start a Trade Association?

Clearly, SEMPO’s either not getting the right message out about its mission or despite the message, some simply don’t believe it. And sadly, the recent debate and disappointment over this has caused one of the most significant things SEMPO has done to be lost in the noise.

At the SEMPO meeting last month, the group unveiled its new ad campaign to promote search engine marketing among traditional advertisers who may still not be thinking of it. You can see examples of the new “Top Of Mind” campaign here. “Top Of Mind” may not resonate with some search marketers, but for traditional marketers, it means getting the word out to your market.

The campaign is the first I can ever recall being done by a group of search engine marketers, on behalf of search engine marketing. And significantly, that means promoting both search engine advertising and traditional SEO. It’s not just a pitch that people should buy more ads with Google and Overture.

Do We Need SEMPO?

In pondering the issues that have been raised over SEMPO, Traffick’s Andrew Goodman concluded in an excellent post that he’s happier with benign anarchy at the moment than a strong industry group. Perhaps he’s right.

Certainly Goodman’s correct that the industry doesn’t need SEMPO or any other trade group, for that matter. People will still seek out search marketers on their own. The industry is already growing and will continue to. Industry problems will somehow find solutions or simply be lived with. But I still think industry groups can be helpful. SEMPO’s one of those groups, and I’d like to see it get past its problems.

In particular, it would be nice to have an industry group to help patch up search marketing’s reputation, which increasingly seems to be getting worse. Some recent body blows against search engine marketers, where it would have been nice for SEMPO (or other groups) to step up on search marketing’s behalf, are covered here: Improving The Reputation Of The SEM Industry.

More recently, it came to light just how much a gap has emerged between designers and search marketers, which I find so ironic when there’s so much to be gained when both work together. This forum thread explores that more — and I’m planning a longer article on the topic. It’s another place where it would be welcomed to have a search marketing group working to build bridges.

By the way, earlier I mentioned that some are fearful SEMPO may claim some “official” search marketing voice. Those people might want to check out the IAB Search Engine Committee’s mission, which says in part:

The committee is tasked with developing industry standards for the technology of search using XML. The committee will deliver these objectives through research, standards development and stakeholder education.

Not a lot of small firms on that committee, compared to SEMPO. And pretty heavily stacked with people from the search engines, as well. Compare the IAB committee to SEMPO’s membership, and SEMPO feels a lot less “elite” than some have accused it of being.

Search marketers don’t have to organize. But the failure to do so — within SEMPO or within a variety of different industry groups — leaves search marketers with less ability to have a voice in dealing with search marketing’s unique issues. Instead, others involved with search will lead the way, namely the search engines themselves.

How Much Breathing Room Needed?

It’s far easier to destroy something than build it. SEMPO’s not perfect. It has flaws, some very serious. But it’s also enlisted the support of nearly 300 members. We don’t know the size of the search engine marketing industry, but that’s a significant number of people to me by any measure. The board members who’ve stuck their necks out, put in their time, deserve great credit for what they’ve helped built.

Getting a new, professional executive director; ensuring that SEMPO’s in compliance with non-profit guidelines or switching to for profit; improving member communication. These are just some of the several issues that won’t be solved overnight and certainly weren’t going to be solved at the August meeting. The question is, how much more time should SEMPO be allowed?

Some, as a forum thread on the breathing room topic explores, feel SEMPO’s already had enough. They should have gotten things together by now!

Some seem to think a few weeks or so are in order. I tend to be with this group. I’d like to see substantial, visible changes be forthcoming in the near future.

A big positive out of all the forum criticism has been that many have said that they’d like the group to reform, not to just disappear, as in this example. A bit more time for that is in order, especially for things to be done right. It’s something SEMPO itself asks for.

“While we understand the impatience you and other members are feeling, we wish to create an election procedure that will work for years to come. Therefore, we need to allow the elections committee time to research what other organizations are doing, what is legally correct, and what works best for our global/virtual membership model. We do not want to hastily cobble together something that will not suit our long-term needs,” said Dana Todd, a board member speaking for the group.

A bit more time is fine, but we do need action of some type (if only regular progress updates), not further excuses or silence. Honest mistakes have been made. People are busy and trying to do the best they can. But in the end, it’s tiring feeling like you’re constantly having to excuse SEMPO, especially a year onward. More important, it detracts from the good stuff and accomplishments that have happened.

Ultimately, the real clock that’s ticking is the membership expiration periods. About half of SEMPO’s 250 members signed up between August 2003 and January 2004, according to figures shared at the December 2003 and August 2004 SEMPO meetings.

When those people come up for renewal in the coming weeks, they’ll be effectively giving SEMPO a vote of confidence. They may be like Jill Whalen, who posted she wouldn’t renew if asked today. But others members like Dan Thies, posting in the same forum thread as Whalen, are satisfied with both the recent meeting and what the group is doing.

Departing The Advisory Board

As mentioned, I was on the SEMPO board of directors for a short period of time before the group actually launched. I had mixed feelings about this. Aside from the time issue, there was potential that some might feel the group was somehow associated with or run by Search Engine Watch.

I did, however, want to help the group get off the ground. It was born out of open forums I’d hosted at our SES shows. People were expressing a real need and desire to have an industry group. When volunteers stepped up to form one, I wanted to support them.

When the group launched, I moved to the organization’s advisory board. Search Engine Watch’s associate editor Chris Sherman joined me there. We hoped this would let us share any thoughts or knowledge that the group might want to draw from us while providing some distance between our roles as reporters and commentators, since we wouldn’t be making actual decisions or be involved with ongoing activities.

Now, Chris and I are both leaving the advisory board. SEMPO’s a year old and making news. It’s time for us to step back completely, so we can do a better job writing about it.

In our place, SEMPO is planning to bring on new advisory members. Three people have already agreed preliminarily, the board tells me, and the group will announce final confirmations through its web site.

We do wish SEMPO luck, and that’s not of the “they’re going to need it” variety. Instead, as said, there are good, dedicated people — board members, committee members and volunteers — who’ve worked to build something up. The industry as a whole could benefit from it. We’ll be covering SEMPO outside as matures, as is appropriate for us to do.

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